Electoral reform must go to a referendum: Scott Reid’s Op-EdJanuary 6, 2016
Published on: December 28, 2015
On Oct. 19, the Liberals were elected on a platform that included dozens of promises, including more than 30 on various aspects of democratic reform.
One of these was the dramatic but vague promise that 2015 would be “the last election conducted under the first past the post system.” The authors of the platform can be forgiven for sacrificing precision for the sake of a punchier-sounding promise.
But the new government really cannot be excused for the assertions that it has since made, that it was given a mandate to unilaterally select a new electoral system in time for the 2019 election.
Here are a few obvious problems with the Liberal assertion that the election gave the new government an unlimited mandate to design the electoral system of their choosing, without giving Canadians the right to say “No.”
First, such a mandate would exist only if every voter who supported the Liberals did so solely because of this one policy. This just obviously wasn’t the case.
Second, a mandate would only exist if the Liberals had won more than 50 per cent of the vote. In reality, the party was given only 39.5 per cent of the vote, under the very electoral system the new government condemns for creating artificial mandates that are not truly reflective of the public will.
One may concede that other parties, such as the NDP and the Green party, also campaigned on pledges of electoral reform of one form or another. But it would be absurd to suggest, for instance, that any Canadian voted NDP in order to give Justin Trudeau a completely free hand in designing the electoral system of his choosing.
This leads to a third objection. The fact that there is more than one alternative to the status quo is of key importance.
Neither the Liberal platform, nor any utterance from the party since, has indicated exactly what would replace the current electoral system – although a list of potential options is quite easy to formulate. But in the absence of naming any specific alternative, voters have not, in fact, had the opportunity to choose one over others.
The Liberal party does have a mandate to govern. If in the course of carrying out that mandate, they wish to bring alternative electoral systems to the people, they can certainly do that. And the only democratically legitimate method of bringing those options to the people, given the concerns raised above, is in a referendum.
Referenda in questions of this nature are the norm under our system of government. This is how New Zealand did it, in two separate polls held 19 years apart.
In 1992, New Zealand voters said Yes to a new electoral system, and in 2011 they said No. So much for Trudeau’s by-now-notorious comment that “electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”
On Dec. 10, 2015, I sponsored e-petition e-48, through the House of Commons’ new e-petition system (petitions.parl.gc.ca) that calls for a referendum on any electoral reform proposal. Canadians can view and sign petition e-48 until April 9, 2016.
I have been advocating a referendum on this subject since 2001, for a reason that I stated years ago, and still strongly believe: If politicians are left in charge of designing a new electoral system, they will be unable to resist the temptation to choose a system which will, based on the dynamics of Canadian voter behaviour, have the effect of benefiting the party in power.
Only a new electoral system that does not change our elections in a way that is judged unfair by voters will be accepted in a referendum. And that’s as it should be.
Scott Reid is the MP for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston and the Official Opposition critic for democratic institutions.